For someone who has made their living as a professional communicator for almost four decades, I have said some really dumb things in my personal life. And I mean, really dumb. Just ask my family. On second thoughts, don’t. It just seems that when I switch my computer off I am prone to parking my brain in neutral as well.
When I’m on the job I’m alert. Through the years I’ve developed this inner software that enables me to see what something someone says to me looks like in print; words on the page can read very differently to the way they sound. It allows me to push back, follow up, seek clarity. I am engaged.
Off-duty my default program, if I am not careful, can be a form of predictive listening that does not serve me, or others, well. I can find myself with half an ear to what someone is saying, while formulating my response—or even thinking about something else.
Not only is failing to pay real attention in this way disrespectful, it can be dangerous. Like the morning I got a one-word text at work from Marcia, then my fiancée.
This was a little confusing, so I scrolled back through our previous messages. Then it became alarming.
I had sent her two messages earlier in the day. The first had been to recall the fun we’d had at the beach at the weekend. The next was the problem.
Alison, did I leave my sunglasses in your car?
Oops. A hasty phone call, and I was able to clarify that I had thought I’d keyed in “Also,” which must have been auto-corrected, and that there was most definitely no Alison, honestly.
Thankfully she believed me, but even with that careless lesson—when my lack of engagement could so easily have led to, well, my lack of engagement—since we married I have at times found myself slipping back into predictive communication mode.
But the reality is that while being vigilant pays in my professional life, it’s priceless in my personal life.